Jim Fresno wasn’t expecting an answer to the inane question he asked while he made his entrance into the Jockeys’ room. This room was no ordinary place. In the room, the “t” in the word valet is never silent. From it, small men play a dangerous game for large amounts of money. They spend more time there, with their rivals, than they do with their families, if they have any, at home. And while these energetic athletes are cooped up in this relatively tight enclosure, to patiently pacify them, as a parent might be moved to appease a fidgety child, often becomes a valet’s most demanding duty.
The main portion of this particular jocks’ room consisted of two rows of benches on opposite sides of a large rectangle of archaic wood lockers that protruded from the walls. Each valet had a work station among the rows of benches where he could tend to his jockeys’ equipment while he wasn’t saddling horses.
In the center of the rectangle was a long table, bearing numbers to represent the entries for the races. Upon each number, the jocks’ saddles were placed with numbered towels for the upcoming race. Above the entire area of the room, from the ceiling, hung a colorful array of diamond, checked, sashed, halved, and quartered silks. They were arranged according to their shade; kelly and forest greens, royal and navy blues, whites, blacks, yellows, purples, oranges, crimson reds, and hot pinks.
On the far end was a snack bar. The other end, where Jim entered the room from a short corridor, was where the Clerk of Scales and his assistant had their desks. The scale was at the end of the table closest to them. Throughout the room, lingered the aroma of bacon mingling with boot polish, lemon pledge, and leather. Jim, still in his robe, wanted his valet to help him dress.
“BLINK,” he bellowed. Blink had been working for Jim since he started riding. He got that name after he lost one of his eyes when the pin from an elastic girth, which is used to secure the saddle, slipped and pierced it. No one knew how old he was. Most figured he was around seventy, but some, like Jim, swore he was ninety. Everyone would agree though, that he was in good shape and quite wiry for whatever age he was.
Blink strutted his way toward Jim from the snack bar. “Hey blind man”, Jim greeted him. “What kinda food they got back there? Gotta be free. Only food you like is free food.”
“Man! Whatchu want,” Blink asked.
“Where’s my pants, you old fart? The first race is out there. I ride the second.”
“Where you think they are? Folded in your locker!”
“Nah, bitch. You know I want ‘em layed out on the bench.”
“You lazy”, Blink said to himself, as he went to retrieve the riding pants from the locker.
Jim was now disrobed and seated on the bench, impatiently waiting for them. He slipped the pants on and began looking for socks. Blink handed him a rolled up pair of thin ladies’ trouser socks that the jocks like to wear with their boots. After he put the first one on he asked, “What de fuck is this?”
“This.” Jim lifted his leg so Blink could see his big toe sticking out of a hole in the sock. “What is wrong with you, old man? You make more money than any valet in this room and you buy this cheap dollar store bullshit.” Jim finished dressing, shaking his head.
“Checking for the second race”, the Clerk of Scales announced over the PA.
“C’mon bitches! Let’s get this shit done!”, Jim hollered, trying to pump himself up. He always liked to be first on the scale, which he was, but he found himself there waiting for his saddle longer than he would have liked.
“BLINK! WHERE’S MY SADDLE?”
“On the table! Where it’s supposed to be!” he yelled right back, as he went to get it.
Jim smiled at the clerk, who was patiently waiting, and quipped, “I’m working with the handicapped, sir.”
Jim finally got his saddle and the clerk informed him that he was two pounds overweight. This meant either lead weights that were in the saddle had to be taken out or another saddle had to be used. Either way, it was an inconvenience for Jim because he would have to get checked again.
“You dumbfuck, Blink. Can’t you read the weights? Use your eyeball, bitch!” The other riders had yet to get to the scale, so Jim was able to remain there while Blink walked the ten feet back to his corner for the smaller saddle. As he did this, Jim asked the clerk, “When are they gonna start givin’ valets eye tests, sir? Shouldn’t they be able to see, if they’re saddlin’ horses?”
With the other saddle in hand, the weight was checked to be fine and Jim, stepping off the scale, handed Blink the saddle back. Blink was walking in front of him as they were heading back to their corner, when Jim snatched the program out of Blink’s back pocket and flung it towards the ceiling behind him. Blink turned around in irritation to go get it and Jim proceeded to slap the saddle out of hands, sending it to the floor.
“Man!” Blink implored Jim. “I ain’t got time to play”. In good spirits, Jim went back to his corner to put on his brown and gold silks with matching gold helmet, adorned by tinted goggles. His valet rejoined him and went back to work, making up another helmet for the next race.
“I don’t like you, blind man”, Jim said, waiting for the clerk to call “riders out.”
The valet kept working. “Fuck you, Blink!”
“Wimp”, he finally answered back. Jim, fully dressed now, started shadow boxing right next to him. Blink didn’t pay him any mind, so he gave up the fight. The rider then grabbed his stick and tucked it under his arm. He then started toward the exit of the room, adjusting the rubber bands that kept the wind from blowing up his sleeves, as he briskly walked. It was time to ride.
The room continued to buzz with the activity of valets and idle riders clowning around with one another, when twenty minutes later a bell clanged from the various TVs, marking the start of the second race. Midway through the announcer’s call of it, a big groan sounded in the Jocks’ room. Those who weren’t watching one of the monitors asked those who were what happened. “Jimmy F went down” was the word given back. “Fresno?” people responded, not wanting to believe it. Everyone wanted to know how bad it was. A spill always looks bad, but jocks are often seen amazingly walk away unscathed.
Jim didn’t walk away from this one. He was on his way to the hospital in an ambulance on a stiff board. Someone said he hurt his back. All the guys in the room kept asking Blink if he was moving. Blink didn’t know. He was working when they were out there tending to Jim—waiting to pick up a saddle from one of the horses that finished the race.
Blink continued to work through the day. The usual banter in the room was subdued. Jim’s agent came by to ask him to pack his effects to take to the hospital. There was still no word on how serious the injuries were. The only thing anyone was told was that x-rays were being taken. As Blink packed Jim’s things, he told the agent he would be over to the hospital right after the races. There was no one better to pick Jim’s head up, at such time, than Blink. And everyone in the room knew Blink would be the one to ask the next day, if Jim was OK.